News and Press

Right Person. Right Place. Right Time.


Published January 7, 2013.

Photo: McGinnis-1153-PrideofPlace Fall-22-2012 121206a maj

McGinnis-1153-PrideofPlace Fall-22-2012 121206a maj

The woman’s message was garbled. Something about him. Something about the Wanner Award. Mike McGinnis, the retired brigadier general who now leads the Peter Kiewit Institute, figured the message was just to let him know he’d been nominated. He phoned her back and left his own message: Thanks so much. It’s such an honor … He knew all about the Wanner Award, the prestigious lifetime service award given each year by the Military Operations Research Society to someone who’s made a huge impact on national security. The people who’d won were among his heroes. These were people who’d used math and technology to solve complex the choir teacher. They were among McGinnis’ first heroes. “They had extraordinary high standards,” McGinnis says. “If you didn’t do something just right, you were doing it over until you got it right. That carries over into sports, that carries over into life, that carries over into almost anything.” That carries over into how McGinnis sees his role as director of the Peter Kiewit Institute in Omaha, which combines UNO’s College of Information Science and Technology with UNL’s College of Engineering. To succeed, he says, it has to be as a team. “It’s got to be all hands. It’s got to be all faculty. It’s got to be all staff. It’s got to be everybody,” says McGinnis, who came to PKI three years ago. “The future is collaboration, cooperation and communications – the three Cs. If you can’t piece all three of those together, you’re never going to be world-class.” Among his goals for PKI by 2020: Grow its enrollment from about 1,650 last year to about 2,700, and turn out enough workers to meet the needs of local businesses. • Grow its research from about $5 million this year to $20 million. (The current $7.5 million renovation will add 16,000 square feet of research space, he says, and accelerate collaboration because of its movable walls and innovative design.) • Grow its reputation as a world-class leader, by continuing to recruit world-class faculty. “We’re getting there now,” he says. “Our faculty are gaining a wide reputation, and this institute is, too, for the quality of the academic programs and the quality of our students who graduate and the research that we’re doing. I’m very excited about what the next five or 10 years are going to have in store for us.” McGinnis sits near his desk in his office at PKI. His 2012 Wanner Award hangs on a wall. Among its words in praise about him – He has proven to be a “game changer” for the national security community for many years but his work as a “life-changer” for countless junior analysts is what makes him an invaluable asset for our community. Titles and honors are terrific, he says. But they don’t make you a good leader. “I’ve always been most inspired by the people who were a little humble, who didn’t take themselves too seriously,” he says. “But you knew they had what it takes to be a leader. It’s a natural leadership, as opposed to ‘This is what my rank is or my nameplate on my door.’ “It kind of goes back to this Nebraska thing we have here in the state – doing the right thing for the right reason, working hard and not stopping until the job is done right.” One of the biggest honors of his life, he says, was knowing another native son of Nebraska, Capt. Art Bonifas. Bonifas grew up in Omaha and graduated from Creighton Prep, just two miles up the road from PKI. Like McGinnis, he was good at math. McGinnis met him after arriving at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as a first-year cadet. That was 1973. Bonifas, a math teacher, became his sponsor and took him under his wing. Bonifas had a redheaded wife who gave McGinnis home-cooked meals and advice on girls. Bonifas had three small children. The home became a safe haven, McGinnis says, from all the hazing you go through as a West Point plebe. “He taught me about being a military officer, about duty and honor to your country. He ingrained in me things about taking care of your soldiers.” On one trip back to Omaha, Bonifas and his family drove to Wisner to visit the McGinnis home. They went out to the hog farm. The Bonifas kids were thrilled to get to ride a Shetland pony When McGinnis was a West Point junior, Bonifas got deployed to South Korea. One August day in 1976 he and another soldier were sent to trim a poplar tree growing near a bridge along the contentious border between North Korea and South Korea. The bridge was called “The Bridge of No Return.” Several dozen North Korean soldiers surrounded the two men, and murdered them with axes. This was just three days before Bonifas was to return home. McGinnis was a pallbearer. He did what he could for his friend’s widow and kids that final year at West Point. On Graduation Day, Mrs. Bonifas gave him a long piece of wood with his name burned into it. M.L. McGinnis. It’s front and center on his desk They had a ceremony the other day at PKI to honor McGinnis for getting the Wanner Award. McGinnis heard Walter Scott – one of his newest heroes, a role model of generosity and vision – tell the crowd that no one who knew McGinnis well was surprised Said Scott: “At the institute today, we are fortunate to have the right person, at the right place, at the right time.” McGinnis then stood at the podium and thanked his folks, Jim and Bonnie, his first role models. He thanked his own three grown kids. He thanked his colleagues and students at PKI. “This is a dream-come-true job for me,” he said. “And I am so proud to be back here in the state of Nebraska.” He talked about the current renovation at PKI and how it means knocking down walls and creating an atmosphere of collaboration. And he talked about the future as he held a fist in the air. All the fingers of a hand must work together, he explained. Not each finger doing its own thing. But united like a fist. All hands. That’s how you win. - Colleen Fleischer, University of Nebraska Foundation

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